Student protests will shape a generation of Americans' thinking on social justice

Anti-apartheid demonstrations in the 1980s set a new standard on American campuses, and today's movement will do the same

A protest movement that began at Columbia University has spread across America. AP
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The sustained student unrest over the Gaza war may have reached a crescendo. Yet US student activism against Israeli policies may be just starting.

This semester is ending. Israel's rampage in Gaza appears to have one major target left in Rafah. And the astoundingly self-defeating behaviour of the Columbia University administration will shortly be studied by others as an object lesson in exactly what not to do unless you want protests galvanised and empowered.

But perhaps the biggest reason is that the opportunism on the political left and, especially, the right over this issue is probably approaching points of diminishing return on both sides.

The confrontation began over a peaceful student encampment of about 100 students on one lawn out of at least a dozen on the Columbia campus.

The students were demanding a ceasefire, an end to US support for Israel and, crucially, that the university divest from holdings that operate in, or work closely with, Israel.

The university had the option of simply ignoring the students, or even trying to meet some of their demands. But the political right sensed an election-year opportunity to argue that liberal-dominated colleges had created the groundwork for supposedly "anti-Semitic" protests just by being too liberal.

When Columbia’s president, Nemat Shafik, was summoned by a congressional right-wingers, one radical fundamentalist Congressman asked her if she was worried about Columbia being "cursed by God" because of anti-Israel protests. Unfortunately, that absurd question probably played well in his district.

Feeling the political pressure from powerful national right-wingers, some parents and wealthy donors, Dr Shafik asked police to intervene, arresting 100 students who, police attested, may have been technically trespassing but who were not doing anything but calmly expressing their opinions.

This craven action may have been sufficient to placate pro-Israel parents and donors, and indemnify Columbia's administration from further right-wing attacks, but it was a massive blunder in terms of limiting the protest movement.

The students were zip-tied, arrested and processed, but quickly released on misdemeanour trespassing charges. Most immediately returned to their encampment, which they of course then vowed to maintain indefinitely. Similar protests spread around the country.

Columbia students began negotiating with administrators over the encampment, but talks broke down, particularly on divestment. Suspecting the university was planning more mass arrests, some students took over an administration building. The university once again decided to send in the police.

These students in some cases are now being charged with burglary and other excessive charges that probably won’t stick. But between its “get tough approach, the end of the semester, and the final stages of Israel’s major operations in Gaza, this batch of protests may have largely run its course.

The issue is highly unlikely go away in the short term, and could flare up even more dramatically in the future

Yet the Palestinian cause has almost certainly emerged decisively as international social justice cause for the current generation of American students. Unfortunately for campus administrators, the issue is highly unlikely to go away in the short or medium terms, and could potentially flare up even more dramatically in the future.

For all the rhetoric about the appalling war, Israel's brutality and the virtually unimaginable number of Palestinian civilians, particularly children, who have been wantonly killed in Gaza, the divestment movement will probably emerge as the next phase of a protracted campaign on US campuses. When anti-apartheid fervour gripped campuses in the 1980s, many universities adopted rules prohibiting their own investment in entities that do business with those practicing apartheid, without limiting the ban to South Africa only.

The opportunity for student activists, and the nightmare universities will struggle to manage in coming years even without the Gaza war, is built-into those policies. After all, it is difficult to look at the social, economic and political system enforced by Israel's occupation army, particularly in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and argue with a straight face that it cannot accurately be described as "apartheid".

The only effective means of doing so would be to claim that this is a temporary military occupation to be resolved by forthcoming negotiations. But given that it has been ongoing since 1967, and that the policy of the current Israeli government is to eventually annex large chunks of the West Bank and never allow the establishment of a Palestinian state, that claim of a "temporary" status is intellectually, factually and legally baseless.

That could all change if Israel suddenly recognises the Palestinian right to a state and enters into a process to eventually create one. But that would be a total repudiation of the stated policies of the current government, and unlikely to be embraced by any viable alternative coalition

Students may find themselves on rock solid ground in coming years in asking why their universities persist with investments in such a system, or companies with any sort of presence in, or business with, the Israeli settlement project in the West Bank. The pro-Israel and right-wing backlash will be hysterical and reflective of great power, but counterarguments at the universities themselves will be factually hamstrung and intellectually weak.

The rhetoric of the anti-Gaza war protests has been shaped and informed almost entirely by the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, and these protests in turn have galvanised and breathed new life into the BDS project on American universities.

But BDS proponents will be on much shakier ground whenever it insists on breaking ties with Israeli universities and especially refusing to deal with Jewish Israeli faculty. Suddenly, they will find, the moral and intellectual equation flips against them, as they will be painting with far too broad a brush and playing into the hands of those would accuse them of anti-Semitism.

But, especially insofar as they avoid academic and intellectual boycotts and stick to divestment from Israel, and especially anything to do with the occupation and settlements, this coming student movement should prove enduring and potent. It has been operating on the margins of US campuses for the past two decades, meeting with limited success among student structures but virtually none institutionally.

The main legacy of the current organising against the Gaza war is very likely to be a greatly empowered campus divestment movement regarding Israel that, despite pressure from the same pro-Israel parents, donors and politicians, university administrations will find increasingly unmanageable, effective and possibly irresistible.

Published: May 03, 2024, 12:40 PM
Updated: May 05, 2024, 8:53 PM